12-25-15 - Use Your Words

“Use your words.” I never thought to compare the God who rules the universe with a pre-verbal toddler, struggling to make herself understood, but that’s what came to mind as I thought about the holy mystery at the heart of Christmas:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…

Why was the Incarnation of God’s Son necessary? In part, because of a communications breakdown. Because humankind could not understand the language in which God was communicating. We could not understand who God was. God had to use his Word – and give that Word flesh and send that Word to “pitch tent” among us and sojourn with us for a time, so that he could make God known to us.

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Jesus himself is worthy of our interest and attention and devotion. But if we forget that all that love and power and mercy and holiness and desire for justice was revealing to us who God is, we miss more than half the point. Jesus was simply demonstrating how things work in the realm of God, the Life of God. He was showing us God, making God known.

Today we celebrate God made known in the most vulnerable of states – and yet powerful enough to command the attendance of kings and angels. And, I hope, compelling enough to command our attention and love, on this day when we celebrate his wondrous birth. Christmas has just begun.

A blessed Feast of the Incarnation to you. God has used is Word to make God’s love known. I pray that today, and every day, we will use our words to make God’s love known to one another.

12-24-15 - Made Children of God

People often say that Christmas is for children. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is a holiday best enjoyed by those whose capacity for wonder and enchantment is untarnished, who still believe in what cannot be seen, who love the anticipation of wrapped gifts and visiting family.

I confess to feeling a little tarnished these days. A pre-Christmas cold has not helped; I haven’t even had time to shop for gifts. The lights are finally on the tree, but nothing else, which pretty much sums up my relationship to the whole Yuletide thing this year. So what good news it is to hear that I have received power to become a child again!

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  (Here is this Sunday's gospel reading.)

Not everyone accepts the Light of the World; some have grown too accustomed to the familiarity of shadows. Not everyone wants light shined in dark places. And by our own strength, we cannot always turn ourselves toward the Light. The way John puts it is that Jesus gives us power to become children of God. We become God’s children not by virtue of lineage or procreation or our own will, but by the power of God which comes from outside us and takes root inside us.

How do we claim – or reclaim – our identity as children of God? How might that reawaken our sense of wonder and delight? It might help to remember that children do not generally feel responsible for everything the way adults tend to do. Can we remind each other that we’re not actually in charge of making Christmas, or the world, right for everyone?

And children don’t generally let life’s disappointments diminish their ability to expect good things. Remember when there was one gift you were so hoping would be there under the tree? What would that be for you now?

Maybe I need to sit under my undecorated Christmas tree for a little while and remember the gift I am, the gifts I have been given, the Gift of Love whose birth we are about to celebrate. Maybe that will help me rediscover the joy of being claimed as beloved by that Love, and let my “inner child of God” come out and play a bit. That would be a wonderful Christmas miracle!

12-23-15 - Witness to the Light

Many people are busy bearing witness to darkness lately, often in destructive ways, seeming to delight in pointing out just how awful this situation or that person is. And there are many who bear witness to pain and injustice and oppression – which is important to remedying such conditions. Often that is part of our calling as followers of Christ.

But not without the even more important calling: to bear witness to the light. That was the vocation of John the Baptist, a holy man who was not the Holy One, who came to bear witness to the coming light:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

The world badly needs more of us to testify to the light – the light that came into the world in the embodied Christ, and is ever coming in through his Body now, the church.

Where do you find yourself called to testify to the light, to proclaim in the face of poverty or evil, illness or lies the triumph of God’s light – even if things still looks pretty dark? If we want to be effective at offering that counter-testimony to so much of what passes for truth in our world, we have to be aware of where we experience the light of Christ, what darkness we have known to be enlightened by the presence and love of God.

Today, in the midst of preparation for Christmas Eve, I invite you (and me) to take a little time to reflect on where the light of Christ is most visible to you. And then find someone and bear witness to that hope.

12-22-15 - Life and Light

Well, this worked out nicely – the next part of our passage is about life and light, light overcoming darkness. And here it is, the longest night of the year. We’ve experienced increasing darkness all through Advent – and not only with the length of days. And here comes the promise that light will prevail:

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I once had a very vivid dream. I was driving a car in a strange city, my parents in the back seat. In this city, all the hospitality businesses – hotels, restaurants, bars – were in one part of town, and we were looking for a particular hotel driveway. But there were no lights. Nothing. No car lights, no street lights, no lights in windows, nothing. Pitch black. We were hurtling through the dark, looking for this driveway, with no way to see. It was very scary.

And then someone in the back said, “Have you tried the infra-red lights?” And I flicked a switch on the dashboard, and boom! All the lights sprang out. Street lights, lights from cars, lights in windows. They’d all been there, but we couldn’t see them without the infra-red lights.

It seemed to me the next morning that this had been a God dream – but I wasn’t sure what it meant, until a few years later I learned how infra-red works. I hadn’t known it when I had the dream, at least not consciously. Infra-red vision works by detecting heat; it sees where life is, and that shows up as light. Life is light. “In Him was life, and that life was the light of humankind.” I gradually realized that this dream was about seeing with the eyes of faith, seeing what is already fully here but not visible without with faith vision.

The life of God is here already, full, vibrant, but we need faith vision to see it. In Christ, we have been given that vision, to see the life that is coming, to see the life that is. As we become able to focus on this future that is already here, we can anticipate with hope, expecting blessing. We are able to believe that healing can come in the starkest of situations, conversion in the darkest of hearts.

And we come to see that what looks like complete darkness is in fact a beautiful night in a wonderful city, lit by the Light of the World.

12-21-15 - Christmas: the Prequel

I gather that the new Star Wars movie just released is a phenomenon not only because it’s good, but because it is the first new film in the series to advance the story in quite some years; recent “new” Star Wars movies were prequels to the original film and its several sequels. (I’m not positive about this – haven’t been paying close attention and don’t have time to look it, so don’t fan-squish me if I’ve got it wrong…)

I bring this up, both to check the “pop culture zeitgeist reference” box for this installation of Water Daily, and because it’s what comes to mind as I approach the prologue to John’s Gospel.

Yes, next Sunday is the first Sunday in the (ahem, 12-day) season of Christmas, and as always the gospel reading appointed is this passage that opens John’s Gospel. And where Luke and Matthew begin their gospel accounts with the birth of Jesus, and Mark just jumps in thirty years later when Jesus begins his public ministry, John goes deep into the pre-history. Deep, way deep, to infinity and beyond. “In the beginning,” he begins, and by that he means before everything. Before anything was, when there was only God, God had a thought and it issued forth as a word, a word with the power of genesis.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

Before we get to the manger and the animals, the shepherds and the angels, the magi and the evil king, before we even get to Mary and her stranger-than-fiction pregnancy, we have this: a word. Not just any word: The Word. God’s Word – and God’s word is more than words. God’s word has the power to make real what did not exist before. God’s word is active, life-making. God’s word is creative, world-making.

How many eons did that Word exist before the time came for him to be given human life, to enter human history? And why did he come into visible being that night in Bethlehem?

There are more questions than answers. I only want us to hold this thought as we make our own journey to the manger this year: that the One whose birth we celebrate was the One who gave birth to us.

12-18-15 - Comrade Mary

At our Bible Study this week, someone noted that Mary is so often depicted in art as quiet and pensive, her gaze downcast. Perhaps artists thought that conveyed her deep devotion, and then it became a convention, like associating her with the color blue. But if I were drawing a picture of Mary, her face would be upturned, her gaze focused toward heaven, and her expression fierce and energized.

This Mary portrayed in the Gospels is not “round yon virgin tender and mild.” (I know, I’m butchering the lyrics – it’s the holy infant who’s tender and mild, and love’s pure light that’s “round” her... but that was my impression as a child.) She is quick and tough, brave and prophetic, alive to the cosmic implications of what God is doing in her as well as the personal ones.

Mary’s Magnificat is not the song of a meek young woman – it is the cry of a revolutionary who sees in her own chosenness God’s redemption of all the little people, and the bringing low of those who wield power. It foresees equitable distribution of wealth, of power, of justice. This is Occupy Jerusalem, circa Year O, AD:

God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
(Here is this week's gospel.)

It is impossible to take economics and politics out of the Christmas story – indeed, I would assert, out of any of the Christian story. This Advent those themes have rung loudly, as we’ve faced such crises and divisions in the world and at home. It is also impossible to take the women out of the story. Over and over in the Bible, we see God work through strong, faithful, opinionated, courageous women to accomplish God’s purposes. Mary of Nazareth, like Mary of Magdala and Mary and Martha of Bethany, is the recipient of God’s revelation in Christ, and is able to connect the dots between Jesus and cosmic redemption.

Mary’s willingness to say yes, in faith and obedience, are part of what make her holy. But there’s so much more to her, as Luke’s gospel shows us. Can we take the time to get to know her more fully, not just a stained glass saint but a flesh and blood girl, who shed her blood and shared her flesh so that the Redeemer might be born? Who bore that “sword piercing her heart” as she watched her precious firstborn court danger and ultimately face a brutal death? Who must have returned again and again to these words of prophecy when it looked like power and evil were winning and the hungry continued to lose out to the well-fed?

I’ve never thought of Mary as my heroine – but I’m seeing her anew this year. I’m heeding her call to justice, only partially achieved 2000 years later. Every time we stand with her and bring justice into being, we join her song and make it truer. (Here is a rousing hymnic version of the Magnificat).

In the fullness of time, it is the song all the universe will sing.

12-17-15 - Magnified

There are moments when we are filled with gratitude and grace, aware that God is real and has acted in our lives. Those are the times when our spirits swell and words of praise burst forth from us. I guess the biggest such moment in human history may have been Mary’s, when Elizabeth delivered confirmation that the baby she was carrying was indeed the Lord of heaven and earth.

Who knows what she actually said – Luke was not there, after all. But he gave beautiful shape to the words she may have said, words that are both humble and grand, personal and global, rooted in Israel’s past and the glorious promise of deliverance to come, proclaiming justice and mercy:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

I’ve always puzzled about the word “magnified” here. I think of magnifying as something you do to make something appear bigger than it is, and God needs no magnification. If anything, God needs to be brought down to a scale we can reckon with (one way of thinking about the Incarnation, actually…). It’s not Mary’s soul that magnifies God, but the Spirit that has magnified Mary’s spirit, expanded it, filled it.

Sometimes our spirits feel very small and pinched, like a tire without air. We need that breath of life that comes from realizing – again – how very great God is, and how very near God’s love is, to refill our spirits and make them bigger than they were. Not for nothing are the words "pneuma," for spirit, and "pneumatic" related.

Events can happen which magnify our spirits. At other times we need to rely on our memory of how God has acted in the past, and our faith in the promise of restoration to come. That’s why we pray, setting aside time to remember and claim God’s promises and allow that remembering and claiming to lead to proclaiming the Good News.

How about this for a spiritual exercise, today or this weekend: Write your own hymn of praise, your Magnificat. What would you say in praise? What great things has the Mighty One done for you? Where has God shown the strength of his arm? Where do you want to see justice break forth?

What a wonderful way to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, and to honor the woman who bore him into the world, in whom God was truly magnified in every possible way.

12-16-15 - Blessed Is She Who Believes

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted from trying to “do ministry,” especially at this time of year. Getting Christmas together for a community, not to mention myself. Writing sermons and press releases, posting events and hosting meetings. Seeking discernment. The list is endless.

And all God really wants from me, and from you, is that we believe. That we believe his promises. That we believe his power. That we trust his presence and goodness and gifts.

One of the most powerful parts of the story of Mary and Elizabeth’s encounter that we are exploring this week is Elizabeth’s simple statement about what makes Mary blessed: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Simply taking God at God’s word is all we really need to do. That’s what garnered Abraham righteousness in God’s sight, according to St. Paul, not the things he did or said, but his believing God’s crazy promise about a son. Mary received a pretty crazy promise about a son too – possibly even more outrageous than Abraham’s. But she said “Yes,” and she took action on what that promise was. Her coming to see Elizabeth was one of the ways she put believing into action.

What promises has God made to us? There are general promises we can find in Scripture – like the promise of peace in the midst of anxiety (Philippians 4), the promise of Christ’s presence always (Matthew 28), the promise of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11). Peace, presence, power – not a bad start.

And sometimes we discern specific ones. Perhaps you’ve sensed God inviting you into some specific ministry and blessing, with some clarity about what will unfold. If the Bible is any indication, these sorts of callings can often seem far-fetched. It might be easy to dismiss them, or try to ignore them, especially in an age when we are not surrounded by people of faith who can help us confirm them spiritually.

When we don’t really believe that God will do what God has promised, God cannot work through us. It’s tricky like that. Acting in faith in such a way that our lives and priorities actually begin to be transformed is a matter of believing that what the Lord has spoken, the Lord will bring into being.

And sometimes we become the means through which God brings his promises to fulfillment. Blessed are we.

12-15-15 - The Kick Felt Around the World

Try to imagine what it must have been like for a post-menopausal woman to be pregnant for the first time. Perhaps now, infertility technology being what it is, some women have experienced that. But in back-country Judea in the waning days of BCE, it must have been a challenge for Elizabeth, so long childless and now suddenly, wondrously, filled with new life.

And here comes Mary, herself mysteriously, wondrously with child, and the unborn one inside Elizabeth begins to do somersaults:  In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.

And now another life stirs within her, more familiar than the one in her womb. The Holy Spirit of God fills her and she gives full voice to her praise: And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  (This week's Gospel passage is here.)

If Mary came seeking confirmation of the angel’s message, God delivered that in abundance. And if Elizabeth had any doubts about God’s purposes in her own unlikely pregnancy, these were also laid to rest. Now she knew for certain that the child she was carrying had a holy destiny. With great humility and gratitude, she praises the Holy One and confirms that the child in Mary’s womb is her Lord. What a moment. No wonder this encounter is among the most frequently painted of Biblical scenes.

Yesterday I asked us to consider what new life might be stirring inside us, new purposes, plans, projects, passions. If we want these to grow and develop, we have to nurture them along, not ignore them until the time comes for them to be born. We have to feed them, and make room for them to kick, even leap and do backflips.

I wish I knew how to make that room. Part of it is insisting on time for quiet and inactivity, as challenging as that can be in our 24/7 world. It means taking walks, and tea breaks, writing in a journal, and yes, committing to quiet prayer time each day, a spiritual discipline that so often eludes me. God may be speaking volumes, but if we never check in, how are we going to know? It's pre-natal care for the spirit.

And when we do feel the kicks? When we feel ourselves filled with the Holy Spirit? Give voice with a loud cry and proclaim your blessedness!

12-14-15 - With Haste

In Sunday Gospel Land, we’re going backward. Having spent two weeks with John the Baptist (at a time when Jesus was already a grown man), we zip back to both men’s pre-natal life.* Back to Galilee, or rather to Judea, to where the young Mary has gone “with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary, having received the rather alarming news of her own impending pregnancy by the power of the Holy Spirit, is told by that frightening angel that Elizabeth, “who is in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

One piece of news or the other sent Mary quickly away from her native Nazareth: 
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  (This week's gospel passage is here.)

I wonder what induced the haste. Was she anxious to verify the angel’s claims, to be reassured that she was not crazy, hadn’t hallucinated the whole stupefying encounter? Was she eager to get away from prying eyes and nagging tongues and gossip that could have exposed her to more than disgrace – were she found to have committed adultery while betrothed, she could have faced a penalty of death. We aren’t told why she went “with haste,” but the phrase jumps out during this season when we are invited to embrace the waiting and watching. Mary didn’t wait – she just went. Perhaps guided by the Holy Spirit, perhaps by her own raging emotions, she high-tailed to the hill country.

There is a place and time for waiting in the life of faith. “Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength,” we read in Isaiah 40; “They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Certainly there is a tremendous amount of waiting during a pregnancy. And there is also a time and a place for action, for moving quickly to right a wrong, or stand for justice, or to discern what exactly it is that God is up to when you’re feeling the Spirit’s nudge.

Discernment is a tricky business. Often we need to wait for things to unfold in God’s time. But when we do get a direct word or prompt, even a hint of where God is inviting us to serve, we can seek confirmation right away.

What stirrings of the Spirit are animating you these days? What activity of God are you drawn to participate in? What person or people do you feel called to encourage and support? What injustice do you wish you could set right? Do you feel called into a new job or vocation? To pick up a new friend or pastime?

Whatever may be stirring, ask God to make it clear. That prayer doesn’t always get answered quickly, in my experience, but we should not tire of asking it, and we should be ready to move with haste when we have a chance to find out just what it is God is doing. For nothing will be impossible with God.

*If you go to Christ the Healer, it’s even more scrambled, as we took time away from John to celebrate Mary this past Sunday at our annual “Baby Shower for Mary.”

12-11-15 - Fire of God

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… isn’t this the season for nice cozy fires? Well, not when we let John the Baptist in. The fire he’s talking about, which he says Jesus will bring, is another force altogether, which will do more than warm us:

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

That doesn’t sound like such good news to me – the ax, the winnowing fork, the unquenchable fire. I’m generally not very fond of fire unless it is contained in a candle or crackling merrily in a fireplace. And unquenchable fire? Isn't that an image of eternal damnation?

But fire is also one of our symbols for the power of the Holy Spirit. Our life in Christ begins with water, the transforming water of baptism by which we are made one with Christ and members of God’s family. And then God’s life is released in us as we are baptized with the fire of the Holy Spirit. That’s where we get the power by which God works transformation through us. We need water and fire.

I’ve written about the prayer experience I had once, when I fervently asked the Spirit to “set my heart on fire with love for you.” A good and holy prayer, isn’t it? But God shot right back: “Do you know what you’re asking? My fire consumes everything that is not of me.”

The fire of God is a purifying flame, and if we let it, it will indeed purify us. I once heard a story that describes this process beautifully. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it’s a lovely image of how gold was purified in olden times. The smelter would take the gold and put it into a pot and put a fire under it. As the gold melted, the impurities in it would rise to the surface, all that is known as “dross,” everything that’s not gold, that’s gotten mixed in, all of that would rise to the surface… and the refiner would skim it off.

And then he’d make the fire hotter, and more impurities would rise to the surface, and he’d skim them off. And then he’d make the fire hotter and more elements that were not pure gold would rise, and he’d skim them off. And then he’d make the fire hotter. Until there were no impurities left. Until, when the refiner looked into the pot, he saw his own image perfectly reflected back to him in the gold.

In this metaphor, we are the gold, of course. And you know the Refiner. But there’s something else: the pot which contains us is the Love of God, the One who was called Love. This pot has been fired in the furnace and will not crack. This Love bears the fire with us. This Love contains us as we are purified, and made ready to spend eternity with him.

If we want to open ourselves to a deeper experience of God’s love and power, we need to ask for a deeper filling of the fire of God, the Holy Spirit. There may be parts of our lives we don’t want to see scorched - can we offer God access anyway? Can we let him burn away the parts of us that are inauthentic, not true to who God made us to be? Can we let in the purifying flame? Can we become the fire of God that the world sees?

12-10-15 - Opening Act

He wore leather and lived off the grid. Way off… deep in the wilderness. He was beyond vegan, eating only locusts, washing them down with wild honey. He was a freak show – and a holy man. Crowds of people came out of the city to find him and hear his often harsh message: Repent! God is coming! Quit whining and return to the ways of your Creator.

They listened, they responded and went into the River Jordan in droves. They wondered if he was the prophet Elijah or even the long-awaited Messiah. They wanted to worship him. But that’s where he drew the line: Listen, I’m not the one you’re looking for. I’m just the advance man for a much bigger show. The opening act.

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.

Even after Jesus began his public ministry receiving John’s baptism, after Jesus began to draw the crowds and even some of John’s disciples, there were some who sought John. I imagine his message was easier to swallow, in many ways. "Stop sinning and start living righteously." Good and bad, black and white, not like Jesus' elliptical stories and counter-intuitive teachings that made no sense. John was simpler.

It can still be tempting to focus on the servants of God when they are really holy, fully devoted to loving and serving God, to confuse worshiper and worshiped. Clergy are taught to be wary of congregants projecting onto them qualities they want to see rather than the real, flawed human leader. Leaders of real holiness have the humility to know their function is to help lead people into relationship with Christ.

And when people are in a relationship with Jesus, they can go beyond the simplicity of “repent” and “be a better person.” They become ready to dwell in the both/and world of the father’s love for the sinner, the sister’s laying aside her needs for her family, the cheating tax collector becoming a great philanthropist, the slave trader becoming a forgiven servant.

John knew who he was, and who he wasn’t, and that makes him one of the greatest saints in history. And yet Jesus said, “the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John got to usher people to the gates of the Kingdom; we get to live there.

12-9-15 - Power Corrupted

It seems that lately every day brings fresh outrage, reports of words or actions by people in authority that demean others or diminish their civil rights. From policemen shooting unarmed people (often in the back…), to hyper-wealthy financiers and huge corporations using legal loopholes to avoid paying their share of taxes, to Christian leaders suggesting people of faith start shooting Muslims (as Jerry Fallwell Jr. said to the student body at Liberty University….) it’s hard to trust anyone with power.

And, once again, John the Baptist is up to the minute:
Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

How are we to respond as people of faith called to humility and love? Much of what is being said lately is so outrageous, it seems to demand a response from any one with a Christian conscience. And it is important to stand against destructive lies and demagoguery – Jesus did lot of that. And yet he also said we are to love those who would persecute us. So how do we go about doing that?

What John did was to call people back to their true selves and remind them of their charge as public servants. He told them to be satisfied with the compensation they were receiving, not to crave more. Now, he was speaking to people who came to him. They were open to counsel on how to live more righteously. A lot of the people causing my blood pressure to rise lately don’t think they need to be taught anything about humility or how to be a bearer of Christ.

The most powerful thing we can do, really is to pray for those who speak and act destruction. Really. Pray for Donald Trump. I confess I haven’t done that once. I believe he is so dangerous to our national security and national well-being, I truly don’t want to be bothered. And yet that is exactly who Jesus told us to pray for. And for terrorists. And for those who game the system. The whole lot.

Every time we hear about a new outrage, how about we stop and pray for the perpetrator? Pray for God to bless them and recall them to their true selves. Imagine what changes could come about if we wielded the only weapon we’re given: the spiritual power in the name of Jesus to transform even the coldest heart.

I’m going to start. You with me? My Facebook feed is going to inspire an awful lot of praying!

12-8-15 - Greed

How many coats is too many? Sweaters? Shoes? Cans of tuna? Does it count if the coats are old? Where is the line between thrift and greed? I fear John the Baptist would say we crossed it a long time ago.

In response to his harsh words about the judgment to come upon those who do not “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John’s listeners were perplexed – and anxious: And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

I like stuff. I like accumulating it, and I must like storing it and moving it, because much of my stuff has been with me awhile. In fact, as my mother prepares to downsize from a house to an apartment, I’m looking forward to getting some of her stuff! And yet I’m also burdened by it, and deeply moved by the need of so many in the world. I suspect I’m not the only person who squirms in that cognitive dissonance.

Greed is not hard to define. It is keeping more than you need, and not sharing it with people who do need it. Almost everyone I know is complicit in a system that fosters greed, even encourages it – after all, buying things is our duty to keep the economy going, right? Except that we could as well keep the economy going by buying things for other people, people who are not related to us, who do not have the resources we have.

Part of my problem, when I am reminded of the hold greed has on me, is that I go to the “all or nothing” place. I’m not ready to downsize to a 300-square-foot tiny house and a 20-item wardrobe and give everything else away, so I guess I just stay greedy until I’m ready to change, right?

Maybe not. Maybe we try the incremental approach. Maybe we figure out some strategies to slow down our rate of accumulation and accelerate our giving to others – and by others, I mean people in genuine need, not gift-giving to our loved ones.

What if we commit to buying one item for a homeless family for every two gifts we buy this Christmas season? What if we make an equivalent donation each time we buy something for ourselves that is not strictly needed?  Even beginning to evaluate our purchases would go a long way toward making us more aware of how much we have relative to so many others. And I suspect linking our accumulation to giving would help us release a lot more.

Am I trying to take all the joy out of prosperity? No. I just think its possible that John – and Jesus, and St. Francis and thousands of other saints over millennia – had a point. If our joy is located in our prosperity, we’re not ready to dwell in the Life of God.

And when our joy is located in the Life of God… we're apt to redefine prosperity.

12-7-15 - Holy Ranting?

I think last Friday’s Water Daily might fairly be characterized as a rant. I was filled with indignation, waited awhile and still felt it was mostly righteous, and let it fly. I hope it landed well in most in-boxes, and that those who prefer their spiritual reflections delivered in more even tones (which I strive to do…) will forgive me this lapse. I will stay in more spiritual precincts this week.

Besides, I don’t have to rant; John the Baptist has that ground more than covered. John is pretty good at it – in fact, when I posted Friday’s reflection on Facebook, I said I was “getting my John the Baptist on.” He let the crowds who’d come out to see him have it with both barr—wait, let’s find a less gun-oriented expression; he let them have it:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’  (This week's Gospel passage is here.)

Wow. In a few short words, he’s called them a nest of poisonous snakes and warned them of wrath, fire and axes. He’s told them their history as “God’s chosen people” is not going to protect them from God’s righteous judgment. Is this the kind of preaching that fills churches?

I don’t think it hurt John’s numbers… nor did he care. Like the prophets of old, he had a message from God to deliver, and he delivered it without concern for the outcome. He was there to tell them what they needed to hear, and to help them enact a ritual that made visible the internal repentance to which he called them. What people did with that message was between them and God.

If we look back at the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, they didn’t mince words either. Their prophecies veered between doom and promise, and they were often terrifying. A prophet doesn’t have to be frightening, but the prophet does have to honestly say what she or he believes God wants the people to hear. That’s the tricky part – to speak for God, and not just out of your own sense of right or wrong - or grievance.

John’s essential message, if we take out the scary bits, was that the people were to bear fruits worthy of repentance. If they were genuinely sorry for the way they had been living, conducting business and relationships, there should be a visible effect in changed lives and behaviors.

We are not to stop calling out injustice and untruth when we see it. We are to work for equity and access to resources and security for all people, and if necessary to speak against those who would deny those basic rights. And sometimes that speaking out will include ranting. Most often, though, it will be a steady, relentless process of forming relationships in which communication can happen in humility and honesty.

Jesus could get up a good rant too – but more often he brought transformation by drawing people into a relationship of love. That’s the kind of prophet I’d like to be.

12-4-15 - All Flesh Shall See

Like many Americans, I am both heartsick and furious at the news of yet another mass shooting, this time in San Bernardino. Unpreventable tragedies are one thing; this regular slaughter of innocents by automatic gunfire is entirely preventable, which makes it all the more hideous. And the fact that in this case the shooters were of Islamic heritage seems to guarantee more prejudice toward American Muslims and even Sikhs and Hindus. And through this maelstrom comes the lone voice of John the Baptist, echoing Isaiah’s vision cast centuries earlier:

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

All flesh shall see the salvation of God – what a prophecy. What a promise. How can this ever come to pass? Especially if it involves human beings trusting and love one another? We seem to be going in the opposite direction.

I confess I feel little trust for many of my fellow American Christians. How can they – and that’s always a sign of polarization, when we get out the “they’s” – claim to follow Christ while ignoring both his teachings and his example? Where is “love your enemy” and “trust in the Lord alone” in the fear-mongering about refugee families? Where is “turn the other cheek” in wanting to arm whole congregations? How on earth can God bring peace in this country?

I know this: God’s not going to do it without us. As a person of faith, I agree with today's New York Daily News headline reminding us that “God is not fixing this” in response to the hypocritical tweets from lawmakers sending their “thoughts and prayers” to victims of gun violence. As one of my senators tweeted yesterday, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again.” And yet today our Senate refused to pass even a common sense law to prevent people on terror watch lists from buying guns, lest some good ol’ boy be kept waiting two days while a background check went through.

No, God will not bring peace without us. God already sent the Prince of Peace. We are not puppets; God gave us free will, and God gave us the power that made the universe through the Holy Spirit.

So how on earth will we ever realize the promise of all flesh seeing the salvation of God? Neither by ignoring wrong-doing and distorted thinking, nor by demonizing those from whom we differ. I guess we’ll have go long on prayer and humility, and try to have longer, more thoughtful conversations.

Never occurred to me until now that embedded in the word “conversation” is the word “conversion.” Let’s keep talking, to God and to one another.

12-3-15 - The Level Road

Who knew that God was in the road business? Flattening, milling, paving, making a way so that he can ride in to the world? That’s the vision that Isaiah sketched, cited by John as he urged people to prepare for God’s advent in Christ:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth…

Another prophet, Baruch, also spoke about leveling the road, not for so much for God’s travel as for the people of God to return from home from exile:
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

We can find this leveling principle in much of Scripture – it shows up in the songs of Hannah and Zechariah and Mary, suggesting an economic leveling as the poor are raised up and the “mighty cast down from their thrones.” It’s there in teachings to lift up our praises even in the face of woes. And of course we see it worked out in Jesus’ life, as he met rich and poor, powerful and lowly with equal love and challenge.

What does this metaphor do for us? After all, there is much to be said for highs and lows, whether we are hiking in the mountains or navigating the complex terrain of a relationship. Who wants everything level?

Well, just as there is a virtue to having level roads, even in hilly terrain, so we, as ones led by the Spirit, are invited to move through the inevitable bumps, even punishing hills of our lives from a level place, grounded in the life of Christ within us. As a wise friend once reminded me, “God doesn’t promise to change our circumstances. God promises to change us within them.” God gives us the grace to deal with our circumstances, the highs and the lows.

Grace is the level road which invites many people to travel on it, returning from the various exiles in which we find ourselves to the embrace of the One who eagerly waits for us to come home. And grace is the level road on which that One comes to us, gaining easy access to our hearts and minds, our faith and hope and dreams, our wounds and disappointments.

The level road is for us and for God. It is where we can meet God and walk the highs and lows together.

12-2-15 - Baptism of Repentance

In the church we tend to refer to John as “the Baptist,” perhaps causing some to wonder why he's not "John the Episcopalian." Some bible translations call him “John the Baptizer.” Luke identified him not by his calling, but by his parentage, “son of Zechariah.”

…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The “baptism” John offered bore little relation to the rite of Christian initiation we know as baptism in the church. He was not baptizing people into the name of Christ – he was offering a ritual cleansing to symbolize the spiritual cleansing of repentance and forgiveness. And why would anyone need a “baptism of repentance?” To clear the way in their hearts for the message Jesus would bring and the reconciliation to God he would enable.

John was the advance man, and his mission was articulated even before his conception, when his father received a visit from the Angel Gabriel telling him that he and his aged wife Elizabeth, long childless, were to have a son:

…the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
(Luke 1:13-17)

To make ready a people prepared for the Lord – that is the mission which John lived and died to fulfill. His approach to that task was to call people to repent – to repent for personal sins and shortcomings as well as complicity in societal sins and injustices.

I’m sometimes asked why we spend time confessing sins in church – doesn’t that convey a message of degradation and “not-good-enough-ness?” But I am unable to drop it from the liturgy for the same reason that John was in the repentance business: If we want to welcome God, we need to be real about ourselves. We have to make room in the clutter of our hearts and lives. In fact, I’ve moved the confession part of our worship closer to the beginning, so that we can clear the decks and make space for the Spirit before we engage the Word and share the Meal.

We are to share John’s mission to "make ready a people prepared for the Lord." We don’t need to point out to people their sins or sinfulness; we need only be clear and humble about our own, in a graceful way, speaking freely of our need for forgiveness and God’s abundant mercy. So we will invite people to bring their whole selves into an encounter with God, and let them know that everything can be transformed.

12-1-15 - Incoming!

When I was newly ordained, I was part of a diocesan Ordinands Training Program, which met monthly. Once, when we were meeting at diocesan offices, we were surprised by a sign indicating our meeting room which read, “Ordnance Training here.” We agreed that it wasn’t far from the truth.

I think of this when I read these words: “…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” I think of cries in battle, “Incoming!,” warning soldiers to get out of the way of enemy bombs and shells. Is this what it felt like to John when the Word of God came to him in the wilderness? Because what God asked of John prepared people for the coming of Christ – and also set him up for imprisonment and an untimely death in Herod’s prison. (This week's Gospel reading is here.)

In the bible, the wilderness is a place where people often hear the word of God. And it still is – not always right away, but eventually, when we leave behind the clutter of our lives and spend time in wilder, less programmed spaces, we become more open to the urging of the Spirit. It can involve quite a wait; the word of God comes on God’s timetable, which is frustrating for those of us accustomed to making things happen. And sometimes it unfolds in increments instead of all at once. But when the word of God comes to us with a mission, it can be explosive, demanding that we rearrange our lives and priorities, even our relationships.

John had a very big part to play in the unfolding of God’s mission to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation to wholeness in Christ. I believe God is inviting you and me to participate in that mission as well – and we might need to make ourselves available to receiving that word. If you want the word of God to come to you, tell God that in prayer. Say, “I’m open. I’m listening. And I'm willing to have my life rearranged.”

Maybe this Advent we can find some wilderness time, in short bits or for a proper retreat, and see how the Spirit is inviting us to participate in reshaping this world.

11-30-15 - Specificity

I’m so happy to be back in the Land of Luke in our Sunday lectionary gospel readings. I appreciate Luke’s emphases on healing, justice, the work of the Holy Spirit, on Jesus’ compassion and friendships with women and people marginalized by disease, ethnicity, poverty, wealth or sin. And maybe it’s the medical training (if indeed the author of this Gospel and Acts is Luke the physician mentioned in the latter work…), but Luke is also often the most precise in his reportage, telling the story as fully and accurately as possible.

So it is that, before he tells us about John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness, he gives us the who, what, when and where:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (This week's gospel passage is here.)

Luke gives us the lay of the land, the context – exactly when this story took place, the locations that were germane, who were the political figures, and who were the spiritual leaders. He even tells us whose son John was, and where the word of God came to him.

This is more than attention to than historical detail, I think. Luke reminds us that this great story of God’s intervention in Gods own creation wasn’t just a general tale – it was specific. It happened to real people in real places, facing real challenges and circumstances. The Good News is always infinite and universal – and as specific as a unique person born to a particular family in a particular place and community. The power of Jesus’ story is for all people in all times and places. But Jesus was rooted in a specific time and place.

So are you. So am I. The infinite and universal Love of God has also shown up in your particular person and circumstances, family, networks, preoccupations and prejudices. You first encountered the Gospel in a particular setting and person and community, just as Christ-in-you is the best way that people around you will get to know God.

Where was it that you first encountered the Living God? When? Who was in authority, and who was important in your life? What was happening in the world around you? Take some time to recall the circumstances in which the revelation of God’s love first became real to you.

That’s your story within the Great Story. We can only effectively tell the Great Story if we begin with how God showed up for us - and that story is always very specific.

11-26-15 - Thanksgiving

I’ll keep it short today – you are no doubt busy with dinner preparations, or busy doing nothing at all, or both (those not being incompatible states…).

I once asked a wise person how to cultivate joy, which is not my strong suit. And he said, “Joy grows out of gratitude." So I’ve made an effort to foster an attitude of gratitude, as they say, to lead with thankfulness for what is, before I focus on what’s missing. So here are a few Thanksgiving Day thankfulnesses:

First, I want to say how grateful I am for this Water Daily community of readers, thinkers, commentators and pray-ers. I don’t know exactly how many or who reads this on any given day, and I don’t get a response each day. But some readers drop a note often enough to give me a sense that this is a conversation, even if I’m doing most of the talking.

And I am grateful for the opportunity to write this thing every day. Some days, the writing gets jammed into a half-hour toward the end of the day, and some days I know exactly what I’m supposed to write and it comes flowing forth. The best days are when I didn’t know, and the Holy Spirit surprises me. Unsurprisingly, those are often the best posts and receive the most feedback.

No matter what the process, it gives me a chance to engage with the gospel text for Sunday, and allows creativity to flow from the parts of my consciousness that don’t always get the air time they should.

And I am grateful that these words help some preachers to connect with the passage in fresh ways, and some congregants to better appreciate the sermons they hear on Sunday. God is so all over this whole process, it makes me smile just to think of the space we’re giving the Spirit to play!

I wish you a blessed and restful and delicious Thanksgiving Day with loved ones, your own sweet self, and the Spirit of God.

And... unless the Spirit gives me something else to say about this Sunday's gospel reading, I'm not going to post anything Friday. I'm going to walk and digest Thursday's dinner!

Oh - and here's a link to an op-ed I wrote about welcoming refugees, printed in the Stamford Advocate on Wednesdsay this week, co-signed by several valued clergy colleagues.

11-25-15 - En Garde!

En garde! That’s about the sum total of what I know about the sport – or is it the art? – of fencing. But it’s what I think of when I read Jesus’ warning to his disciples:

‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

If ever there were an apt warning for the day before Thanksgiving, this is it. Don’t be caught unawares… the turkey needs brining, the silver needs polishing, the oil needs changing, or was that the baby? Yep. Stress, thy name is the Day Before Thanksgiving. Whether you’re hosting or traveling, there seems to be a to-do list – especially if you have two x chromosomes… And yet, here is Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” (Save those for Thanksgiving Day!)

This, of course, is an instruction for life, not just for a Wednesday in November. It invites us to live in a state of preparedness such as we develop during times of crisis, like, perhaps, the residents of Paris, Beirut, Brussels, or Bamako are living with now, but without the terror. How might we cultivate a state of "en garde-ed-ness" without kicking up those nasty, free radical stress chemicals? How can we be at peace, serene, and also alert?

Maybe the stylized movements of fencing have something to teach us. “En garde” is the instruction given when two players face off; it begins the match (bout? I’ve already spent more time on fencing terms than I want to...) It invites the combatants to assume a defensive posture, but one that distributes their balance in such a way that they can thrust and parry, light on their feet.

As followers of Christ, we are to be alert and on our guard against the trials that test our faith, and the temptations sent our way by the enemy. Yet we are to hold that defense lightly, remembering that it is not we who do battle, but Christ who fights for us, with us. Our posture of readiness is one that allows us to yield to God’s power coming through us.

Balance implies an equilibrium between rest and movement, thought and action, receiving and giving. What if we made it our spiritual goal this Advent to find this balance, to be on guard but without fear, ready at all times to fight for justice and faithfulness with love and mercy, wielding the “epee d’Esprit,” the sword of the Spirit, in the name of peace?

When do you feel most relaxed? Think about how might you cultivate that feeling more of the time, even during stress. How better to prepare for the advent of the Prince of Peace.

If you’re stressed out today, try it now. En garde!
Now relax.

11-24-15 - Reading the Leaves

Living in a four-season climate offers an ever-unfolding lesson in cycles of life, birth and faith, death and resurrection. As fall wanes in New England and the few leaves left on the trees have lost their brilliance, we learn about letting things drop, letting things die. When the snows come, and the barren landscape hides all the life teeming below ground, we are reminded that there is more than meets the eye. And when things thaw in springtime, that life becomes manifest above the surface, “first the blade, then the ear and then, in time, the full corn.” (Mark 4:28), teaching us yet again about the indomitability of growth.

Jesus was a student of the seasons too: Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”  (This week's gospel passages is here.)

The “things” Jesus’ followers were to look out for were astral signs, turbulence in the seas, and human distress. Hmmm… there is pretty much always something to see if you’re looking in those places. And there is always reason to think the signs you see are indications of an unfolding cataclysm. Famines, floods, earthquakes, terrorists… aren’t we really in for it now? Maybe – but I always like to remember that things looked a lot worse in the 14th century.

What if we looked for more subtle signs that the kingdom of God is near? Outbreaks of generosity, life-affirming discourse, spiritual revivals, an increase in the numbers of people worldwide claiming the name of Christ and living in continuity with his life and the values of that kingdom he proclaimed. Now there’s a sign I’d love to see.

I’ve always found this a curious passage, because Jesus had already proclaimed that the kingdom of God had drawn near, was in fact made real and present in himself. The miracles were simply demonstrations of that kingdom life, and the stories and teachings were explanations of kingdom values. Yes, there will be a cosmic ending, but if we spend our time reading the tea leaves for when that is coming, we will miss all the signs of God-Life around us now. We might even be diverted from being a sign of God-Life for someone else.

Advent invites us to be watchful and aware, to seek the Christ who came, who is present with us now through his Holy Spirit, who will come again at the end of the ages. Let’s not be so busy looking for signs we miss Jesus right in front of us.

11-23-15 - Climate Change

We’re talking about the end of the world; must be Advent. (Or election season in America…) 
The end of the world, Jesus suggests, will not sneak up on us, tiptoeing in quietly:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken."  

(This week's gospel reading is here.)

Nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves; sounds like the latest warnings from environmental scientists, and Pope Francis. For those who track the melting of the ice caps and the rising of the seas, the increasing ferocity of storms and fragility of food production, also sound the alarm about the conflicts the resultant scarcity may unleash among humans. What are we doing to each other, and to the planet we call home, with its wondrous diversity of creatures and abundant food supply?

Will the end of the world, when it comes, be man-made or God-ordained? Are we to work to save God’s creation or hasten its implosion? I’m still betting on the former – I don’t believe God has invited us to help destroy the earth, but to build God’s reign in the here and now, bringing about a just and merciful creation built on the promises of God. In that sense, we are all to be about the business of climate change. And by that I mean much more than environmental ministry.

The people who follow Jesus as Lord are charged with fostering a climate of godliness, of humility, of generosity, justice-seeking, peace-making, love-giving. Not only are we to live this way – we are to create a climate in which others can experience transformation and live this way too. That is the pattern we see in the community of sinner-saints who surrounded Jesus and later his apostles.

What marks the emotional climate in your community? On your Facebook feed? In your local media? Is it a climate of suspicion and division, or honest inquiry and supportive assistance? Is it a climate of violence in word and deed, or generous debate? Does it celebrate death or nurture life?

And then this: how are you being called to change that climate? Where does God want you to show up? What does God want you to say? Who does God want you to love, to challenge, to break down, to build up?

We are responsible for the climates in which we live, in more ways than one. I pray we can truly be climate changers in the best sense, creators of an emotional, political and spiritual climate in which children can thrive and all those who are wounded can be loved back into wholeness. Even us.

11-20-15 - Truth You Belong To

It is a surreal scene, this genial interrogation by the Roman governor of an occupied territory of an itinerant holy man with no visible support – whose very life hangs on the outcome of this interview. These two do a conversational dance, Jesus never answering a question directly, making no effort to defend himself or set up a scenario in which his life might be spared. When asked directly, “So you are a king?,” Jesus only says, “That’s what you say,” and that his purpose in being born was to testify to the truth. And then he says enigmatically, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

This strikes me as a funny way to put things – I don’t tend to think of people belonging to “the truth,” but rather having the truth, possessing the truth, grasping the truth, denying the truth. What Jesus suggests is that the Truth is much bigger than we are; we can no more possess it than we could contain the ocean or corral the stars in the night sky.

This truth that encompasses us, Jesus suggests, is an objective reality – which prompts Pilate to pose his famously early post-modern question (left off our lectionary this week…) “What is truth?” I don’t think that’s a question on many people’s lips these days. There is your truth, my truth, the media’s truth, doctored distortions of history masquerading as truth. How can anyone know the Truth, much less get lost in its vastness?

Those who follow Christ are given a clue – he said he was the Truth, the Way, the Life. Coming to know Jesus as he was and is and is to come is one way we enter into the Truth. The time we invest in growing our relationship with this Lord who calls us friend brings us deeper and deeper into the ultimate reality of things – the Truth.

And he offered another clue: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” I see many Christ followers responding out of deeply human emotions these days, with little evidence that they are listening to the Prince of Peace who commanded us to love our neighbors, to tend the wounds of the Samaritans considered outcast, to lead with humility and not with combative fear.

How do we listen to his voice? We study his word. We follow his commands and teachings. We listen to other followers of Christ. We pay attention to where his Spirit is bringing life to dead places around us, and join him there.

As we listen, we will hear, and we will know the truth, and the Truth will set us free.

11-19-15 - Testify to the Truth

It is human nature to want to categorize people, put them into a definable box and label them. Pilate was trying to get a handle on who Jesus is, and asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

I wish it could be said of kings generally that they were born to testify to the truth. Kings like that tend to be the exception rather than the rule. And perhaps testifying to the truth is incompatible with the demands of political power. I don’t mean that political leaders have to be liars (though many are…), but they need to have a strategic relationship with the truth, speaking the right things to the right people at the right times, and knowing when not to speak at all.

And what is the truth to which Jesus testified? The truth about God – that power belongs to God. The truth about justice – that God alone is qualified to judge the human heart. The truth about love – that God operates in an economy of love, a love so deep and vast it is dangerous to the human spirit.

Those who call themselves followers of Christ are also born to testify to the truth – and in our tradition, the Truth is personal, the Truth is Jesus. We are living in days when many who claim to follow Christ are allowing fear and bigotry to draw them away from the very clear teachings of Jesus, from faith in the goodness of our God. Shutting our doors to refugees who are fleeing for their lives is never a valid choice for Christians, not if we’re serious about Jesus. If ever there was a week to stand up and testify to the truth in our national discourse, this is that week.

Jesus could never be a political leader; his allegiance to the truth made him too threatening to the powers that be. We need to stand up to our political leaders when they turn their back on the truth, and stand with those who have the courage to speak for justice. We are called to be bearers of this dangerous love of God – maybe because it is inevitably diluted in us, and therefore able to be tolerated by mere human beings.

Let is be bearers of Christ's truth. Let us be bearers of Christ. Let us testify to overwhelming Love.

11-18-15 - E.T., Phone Home

A persistent allegory of the Christ story relates it to aliens on this planet. Artists as disparate as C.S. Lewis and Steven Spielberg have explored incarnation through science fiction. It is not such a stretch to regard Jesus the Christ as an alien life form, masquerading as a human being (though, in terms of orthodox Christian doctrine, it would be considered a heresy…). In a way, he even admitted it. Replying to Pilate’s question, “What have you done?,”

Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’  (This week's Gospel passage is here.)

Of course, our theology teaches that Jesus was not an alien; he was fully human even as he was fully God. But time and again he spoke of the realm of God as a place distinct from this realm of this world – contiguous with it, even infusing it, but a different address entirely. And the values of that realm, as he taught them and demonstrated them in what looked like miracles – but in fact just revealed how the energy of that realm works, even in this one – are quite distinct from man-made purely human patterns of thinking and being. Jesus said as much to Pilate: were he operating by the principles of this world, he’d have whipped up his followers to do battle. But he wasn’t from here, and his response would reflect the principles of God-Life.

As followers of Christ we’re not from around here either, not once we’ve accepted citizenship in the realm of God. Oh, we may carry a dual passport, but Home is not this earth or this life. Home is a full, unmediated, unadulterated experience of the presence of God. It’s a place we may visit in our earthly lives, but mostly it’s a reality we are ever moving towards.

The writer to the Hebrews said this of the great heroes of faith, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland." (Hebrews 11:13-14)

It is a difficult spiritual balancing act, to truly love and accept the gifts of this life, and not to get so cozy we forget where we ultimately belong. When we are able to maintain this balance, though, we are able to love more wholly, less dependently. What, or who, do you find yourself clinging to in this world? How might you move into greater relationship with your heavenly father/mother in that other realm to which you claim allegiance?

We can start with the gift of prayer. E.T., phone home!

11-17-15 - What Have You Done?

Some phrases can stop me in my tracks and put me immediately into a defensive mode. One is “What have you done?” I’m always sure I’m in trouble.

In his trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the occupied territory of what we now call Israel and Palestine, Jesus is already in trouble. He has been betrayed by a close friend, beaten by the High Priest’s guard, and had the religious authorities call for his execution. This interview with Pilate is one stop on his way to crucifixion.

Pilate is aware of Jesus’ reputation as a holy man, a miracle-worker. And he knows too well the intrigues and plots fomented in the Temple courts by men with a little authority, on a short Roman leash. He is not eager to be a pawn in the latest Jewish squabble. He says to Jesus, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

It is an article of faith for Christians that Jesus was without sin; tempted as we are, yet never succumbing. So I wonder how Jesus experienced that question? Did any shame arise in him? Did he live with that part of the human condition too?

I can’t imagine what Jesus felt, but I can imagine what he could have said: “What have I done? I have proclaimed the nearness of God. I have declared freedom to the captives, whether in bondage to disease, sin or poverty. I have healed the sick and cleansed lepers and given sight to the blind, even life to the dead. I have taught that the ways of God run counter to the natural inclinations of the human heart. In God’s realm, we love enemies and do good to those who hate us. We do not seek revenge; we offer forgiveness. I have said, 'Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.'” No wonder they wanted him dead.

This imaginary recitation reminds me that “What have you done?” can cut both ways. Yes, it might invite a litany of confession and repentance. It can also inspire us to take an inventory of all that we have done in Christ’s name to bring healing and wholeness to the world around us, all the ways we have blessed those whom we’ve encountered. I suggest we start such a inventory today, a list of all that is holy and blessed in your resume.

One day, we’re told, we will stand before a Judge, one who already knows what we’ve done, for ill and for good. Let’s be ready to have both sides of that conversation.

11-16-15 - Political Realities

Oh, my friends, if we wanted to hide from the pain of the world in the embrace of our religious texts, we would be sorely disappointed, especially this week. For we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a political fight with religious undercurrents – sound familiar? Within a day of the interview at the center of this Sunday’s gospel story, a man revered by thousands will be dead, brutally killed at the hands of the temporal ruler, under urging from the man’s own religious leaders. His followers will have scattered, hiding in terror of being arrested themselves.

No, we can’t get away from blood, power and violence in our Christian story. That intersection is exactly where God’s incarnate Son landed as his mission in this world culminated in his humiliation and execution. But the governor who ordered his death did not want to see him die. He questioned his prisoner closely, hoping to find a loophole that would allow him to save Jesus. Jesus did not make it easy:

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.”

This week we wrap up our liturgical year before resetting the clock on the first Sunday of Advent. On this final Sunday in “ordinary time,” we celebrate Christ as King. But the only images the Gospels give us of Christ as king show him as a helpless child, honored by magi; humbled, riding on a donkey; powerless, under arrest and trial; or nailed to a cross. Humble and powerless – is that what kingship looks like for Christ-followers?

Like you, I am heartsick at the slaughter in Paris this past Friday, and in Beirut a few days earlier. My reaction to an entity as brutal as Daesh (a preferred term for ISIS that doesn’t honor their pretensions to statehood) )is to assume that force is the only way to disable it. Perhaps it is.

AND I know that Jesus told me to love my enemies and pray for those who destroy others in the name of power. And that his way to prevail was through humility and powerlessness in the temporal realm. The power he exerted was spiritual – a force so strong it could raise the dead, but not discernible to those who refused to see it.

Can we be bold enough to wield that power, given to us through his Holy Spirit? Can we dare to stand against hatred with love, against violence with generosity? That’s what Jesus did – he stood calm in the face of the man who had the power to end his life, and spoke nothing but truth. He walked into death itself and rendered it impotent. That’s how you respond to evil.

God, give us the grace to comfort, to seek justice, to forgive – and to wield love in the power of Christ.

11-13-15 - The Just Community

Jesus must have heard that communications trope about repeating something three or four times if you want it to sink in. Not only does he state and restate the positive part of the parable, he also tells it in negative, talking about the condemnation in store for those who did not see him hungry and feed him, naked and clothe him, and so on.

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” He will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

It’s not enough to see the needs around us; we have to act. And just as we can meet Jesus' standard by tending even one needy person, so it seems we can be doomed by the failure to tend even one of the “least of these.” Back on the hook. This is when I would say, as his disciples did on another occasion, “Lord, then who can be saved?”

We’ve reflected this week on how we are invited to engage with people at their time of need – seeing them as full persons, interacting personally and intimately. We can sum this up as looking, listening and loving. In short, we are to offer not just help, but our very selves, to be available to relationship. Relationship implies mutuality. Part of “helping” someone in need is being willing to let them help you too.

When people from my church began to reach out to a group that hung out on the streets near the Shelter, we started by bringing food, and then offered prayer. Every single person wanted to be prayed for. The second time we went, the woman leading this effort had a cold, so after she prayed for everyone, she asked for their prayers. She was immediately enfolded in the group and beautiful, fervent prayers were offered for her healing. It was the fastest I’d seen a disparate, somewhat suspicious group become a community.

We are called to be a just community, which requires mutuality. If we are generous with our bread but chary with our emotions, we’re not offering the fullness of who we are. And when we’re not fully ourselves, there is less room for the other person to be fully herself. It's also likely that if we were more conscious about mutuality in our giving, there might be fewer needy people around – as a wise man once said, where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.

I pray that we will be about God’s mission of wholeness for every person, making ourselves vulnerable as well as generous. That invites all of us to be clear about our needs as well as our gifts. In the Just Community Jesus came to proclaim, everyone seeks to ensure that each person has what they need. Everyone has a place at the table. Can you imagine a world like that?

Imagining it is part of praying it into being.

11-12-15 - The Best Help

Earlier this week I wrote about the importance of personal interaction as we seek to help people in need. The people whom Jesus describes in his parable are certainly in extreme need. That personal interaction – eye contact, listening, mutual sharing – is key to our having gospel encounters rather than mere transactions. But we can lose the social dimension in the personal – after all, Jesus called people in need were members of his family:

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

So, how do we help the whole family? Sometimes the giving of help, one person to another, is not the best way to effect transformative change. Often it is treating symptoms, while the disease spreads unchecked. I’m thinking about this as my church’s Undie Sunday approaches, and with it the vision of bags of much-needed personal undergarments piled before the altar. This truly is personal care for those who are homeless. But what if we used those resources and that energy to eliminate homelessness entirely?

There is enough data and experimentation from around the country to show quite clearly that homelessness can be eliminated. If we take steps to keep individuals and families from becoming homeless in the first place, we save millions of dollars in emergency room visits, lost school and work days, food and even justice-system costs. We stop the cycle of homelessness before it becomes a part of a family’s pattern. We allow children to thrive in one school instead of constantly moving.We keep families in communities.

And what does it require? Money for rent, basically. Investment in rent subsidies for those with precarious finances could save us millions in tax-payer funded services. We wouldn’t need to collect underwear, or do shelter meals, or any of the important and well-meaning ministries we offer to those who are homeless. We could instead work to provide those who get the subsidies with the kind of community support and networks that most of us take for granted, that would hold us if we suddenly lost a job or couldn’t work. We could offer community instead of a hand-out. It doesn’t have to be an either/or – but I do believe that we put too much emphasis on hand-outs to people who are already in the dirt, and not enough on keeping them housed in the first place.

How does this connect to our spiritual life, which is what Water Daily is supposed to focus on? It’s an invitation to think about what is the best way to feed someone who is hungry or clothe someone who is naked. Along with asking God to send resources, what if we ask the Spirit to inspire strategies, the best way to foster systemic change.

Jesus said he could be found among those who suffer. That doesn’t mean we have to keep them suffering so we can find Jesus in them. We are to be in the business of healing, not just tending wounds. Jesus can also be found in those who’ve experienced transformation too – and he's often easier to spot.

11-11-15 - Over Looked

It can be very easy to not see people, especially people with obvious needs. We can be wrapped up in our own world, intent on getting to the next place, checking off the next task, and not paying attention to our surroundings. We can be preoccupied with our own needs and feelings. We can be overloaded with sensory input and shut down. Or we can be trying not to look – people who are obviously suffering can be annoying, difficult, make us feel helpless. Whatever the reason, we don’t always see.

Jesus is big on seeing. In his parable about the sheep and the goats, he says that those who are rewarded are those who had their eyes open to the people around them:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Sometimes I think we are living through an epidemic of intentional blindness. How else could people spend the sums they do on entertainment or electronica for their children while elsewhere babies die from malnutrition or terror? How could we be so blind to the ongoing effects of systemic racism and economic inequality? Yes, we all need filters to screen out some of the world’s suffering, or we’d go mad – but when do filters become blinders?

"When did we see you, Lord?" How full our churches would be if more people had the experience of seeing Jesus. And yet, according to him, there he is, all over our streets, all over our lives. He is not present only in those who are suffering, but he is especially present in them, in us. What if we were more intentional about looking for him in the hurting and haunted? I preach this all the time, and forget it as often.

It helps when we start out with the “Where are you, Lord?” prayer, and ask the Spirit to lead us to someone in whom we might discern Jesus. How blessed our encounters might be, even with “difficult” people. (Difficult people, like two-year-olds, get a whole lot calmer when someone looks right at them and listens to them…)

Try it this morning. “Who are you going to show up in today, Jesus?” And then take a moment and see if anyone comes to mind, someone you might seek out. If no one occurs to you, wait and see. It helps if we keep our eyes open…

11-10-15 - Getting Personal

The Gospel gets very, very specific in these words of Jesus – the Good News comes to individuals who are suffering in some way or other. And the way it comes is through us.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Many Christians have taken these words of Jesus to heart. It is safe to say most church outreach programs provide basic services to people in need. We serve food in shelters, and work in food pantries. We do bible studies in prisons, and run thrift shops with second-hand clothing. We make homes for refugee families and visit the sick and shut-in. These are all beautiful expression of love. If we don’t interact with people personally, though, they can easily become social services, and the church one more agency seeking donations.

Often our outreach ministries keep us disengaged from the people whom we would serve, especially if we’re mostly writing checks or dropping cans into a food basket. There can be a kindness in this, of course - this Sunday, my church will collect piles and piles of new underwear to be given to men and women who are homeless. Gathering them at church and giving them to the shelters to distribute will spare us all the awkwardness of total strangers exchanging packages of intimate apparel. But we also miss out on a real opportunity to relate as people with needs, one to another.

For we are called to help alleviate suffering as fellow sufferers, not as those who have it all together graciously bestowing charity upon the “less fortunate” (one of the least fortunate expressions known to man…) This doesn’t mean we should stay focused on suffering. It means only that we should remember our own wounds, and be on the lookout for those whose wounds God is calling us to tend.

Jesus mentions six forms of suffering that his followers could alleviate. It is not an exhaustive list. We may be called to reach out a hand of love to someone suffering despair or addiction or joblessness. Where does the Holy Spirit seem to be moving around us? Might we put our energies in those places, joining God in the work of reclaiming, restoring and renewing all people to wholeness?

If we’re drawn to certain needs, like hunger or prison ministry, how might we get personally involved, making ourselves vulnerable to and available for relationship to human beings, not just organizations?
To whom is the Spirit calling you?

11-9-15 - Left or Right?

In the Gospel reading appointed for this coming Sunday Jesus talks about the end of the world. In the passage I will be reflecting on this week instead*, Jesus also talks about the end of the world, specifically the final judgment to come. In this parable, Jesus paints quite a scene, with all of humanity gathered before the Son of Man on his throne.

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

It’s 4th grade recess all over again, choosing up teams for dodge ball, or perhaps a cosmic Tinder swipe. However we describe it, there is a sorting, and the “good” go right and the “bad” go left. (If you’re a leftie, tired of sinister associations to the left-hand, or you lean leftward politically, think forward and back instead of left and right…) Scenes like this tend to raise our anxiety levels; how do we know we’re going to the right side? And how about other people – can’t we all just get folded in with the sheep, no matter what? Can’t we all just get along?

The three parables of judgment Jesus tells in the 25th chapter of Matthew definitely have a hard edge. Divisions are made, and it is possible to be too late, too risk-averse and too indifferent to suffering. Yet I dare to trust that we will be among those on the king’s right hand, those who are “blessed by the Father.” I imagine you have to work pretty hard to be among those who are weeded out. I hope God has prepared the kingdom from the foundation of the world for all of God’s creatures; I think you have to opt out and set yourself about actively destroying yourself and others to risk being disinvited from that heavenly banquet. And even then, Jesus’ other parables suggest, there is room for repentance.

This week, let’s enter into this parable, in which Jesus points us toward the lost and the least. Rather than worrying about whether we’ll go right or left in the final Day, let’s take the invitation Jesus issues this day to live our lives oriented toward God and towards other people. Let’s open our eyes to the blessing God wants to accomplish through us.

*This coming Sunday Christ the Healer holds our annual “Undie Sunday,” when we collect new, unopened underwear for men and women who are homeless – and shine a light on the issue itself. I will be using a gospel lesson other than that appointed focus on that in Water Daily this week.

11-6-15 - Radical Abundance

Yesterday, I wrote about what it means to give when you have nothing, when it costs you everything. Today we look at the more common way to give, out of our abundance.

Ah, but what if we don’t view our circumstances as abundant? What if we’re wired to see scarcity? I daresay it is impossible to grow up in our world unaffected by the advertising industry, and that industry is fueled by scarcity. “I’m not rich enough, I’m not pretty enough, I don’t smell good enough, my car’s not x enough….” (Rarely are we asked to wonder if we’re smart enough.)

Can you think of a crowd in which every hand would go up if you asked, “Do you have enough money in the bank?” Most people would counter with, “Enough for what? For today, sure. But for the next 25 years? For retirement? Ah, no, never enough…”

Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

It is hard to trust our abundance if we do not stay rooted in the day we’re in. “Give us today our daily bread,” Jesus taught us to pray. And most of us have plenty in the day we’re in. I believe Jesus is inviting us not only to trust that we have enough for the day, but to give everything we have, trusting that we’ll also have enough tomorrow.

I once attended a weekend retreat. At noon on the second day, each participant was given a bag stuffed with cards of prayer and encouragement from people at our churches as well as from total strangers. It was overwhelming to realize how many people were praying for us and took the time to write a note. I read a few notes, and decided to save the rest, to parcel out when I got home.

But that evening we got another bag, and more the next day, and the day we left. It was unbelievable, the abundance. And still I was going to save most of them – until with the fifth batch it hit me: this is God’s love made tangible. God’s love is abundant. It never runs out. You can’t save it for the next day – you have to receive it all, open it all, read it all, accept it all – or you won't be open to the blessing God may have for you tomorrow. So I opened every single note, by faith, trusting there would be love when I got home too.

It’s the same thing with our money, our food, our time, our love. We don’t have to save them up. We can spend them lavishly, allowing God to bless others through us, and us through others. Radical abundance is God’s gift to us. Radical abundance can be our way of giving. It is the way to true joy and freedom.